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The Next Video Game From BioShock's Auteur Is in Development Hell – BNN

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(Bloomberg) — It has been nearly eight years since development began on Ken Levine’s next video game. Levine, the creator of the hugely influential BioShock series, is an auteur of the medium. He embodies everything that comes with the title, according to people who have worked for him: a singular brilliance, stubborn perfectionism and a delicate ego.

Eight years is a long time to develop a game. Levine’s breakout 1999 release, System Shock 2, was finished in a year and a half. BioShock—a seminal shooting game released in 2007 that, according to New York magazine, “proved games could be art”—took about five years, as did a follow-up, which came out in 2013. His current project, which began in 2014, still doesn’t have a name or a release date. Development has suffered from numerous reboots and changes in direction, say 15 current and former employees of Levine’s Westwood, Massachusetts-based studio, Ghost Story Games.

Just as critics grant Levine credit for the artistry of his games, many Ghost Story employees readily blame him for their tortured project. Levine is a flawed manager who often struggles to communicate his vision and alienates or browbeats subordinates who challenge him or fail to meet his expectations, say current and former employees, most of whom requested anonymity because they feared repercussions.

A recurring gag around the office invoked another celebrated auteur. Persuading Levine was so difficult that former employees joked about engaging in Kenception, a reference to the film by Christopher Nolan in which Leonardo DiCaprio infiltrates a person’s dreams and plants an idea so that the target thinks he came up with it himself.

Game production is heavily influenced by Hollywood, where famous directors can wield as much clout as the stars on screen. The Steven Spielbergs and James Camerons of gaming include Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us) and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear). Like a big-budget movie, their games can require a crew of thousands to produce. Although creative leaders deserve some of the praise they receive, the adulation can mask managerial flaws and set unrealistic expectations.

One of the world’s top game publishers is betting Levine, 55, will eventually deliver. Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. has a 15-year marriage with him. It began with the acquisition of his last company, Irrational Games, and continued with the dissolution of that studio and the creation of Ghost Story, which Take-Two also owns. The publisher gives Levine a level of autonomy afforded to few game designers. Some of his former employees say the lack of oversight seemed idyllic at first but became detrimental to their work and mental well-being.

Take-Two likely tolerates all of this for the same reason many people have flocked to work at Irrational and Ghost Story over the past two decades: because an auteur is capable of producing something magnificent. But Levine’s managerial style has led to burnout and, former employees say, caused a lot of pain.

Take-Two didn’t respond to requests for comment. Through a representative, Levine declined requests for an interview. But in a 2013 interview with the website Grantland, he addressed the effects of his working style. “If it’s not right, it goes,” Levine said. “It’s not without cost, but I find that the people who are the most experienced at Irrational tend to be the most comfortable with throwing stuff away.”

He saw Mike Snight as one of those people. Levine handpicked Snight from Irrational to help start Ghost Story in 2014. “Ken is a very hard person to work for,” Snight says. “I think he tried a lot to change, and he really excels better at this company than Irrational because it is a smaller group of people.”

Ghost Story set out to revolutionize video-game storytelling but has instead watched other companies accomplish its goals. One employee says the team is optimistic that things are finally on track but estimated a release could still be two years away. Snight eventually quit, along with half of the original team. He says Levine’s creative process is what drove him to leave after five years there. “When it continuously goes in cycles and you don’t align anymore, you kind of get tired of being part of that,” he says. “I wasn’t really happy anymore.”

On Feb. 18, 2014, Levine gathered the Irrational Games staff in the kitchen of their office in Quincy, Massachusetts. Their last game had come out a year earlier, and it wasn’t clear why they hadn’t yet heard about the next one. Levine gave them an answer: With trembling hands and tears in his eyes, he said he was shutting down the studio and laying off almost the entire staff.

The announcement was unexpected and abrupt, say more than a dozen people who were there. Levine had formed Irrational in 1997 with two business partners and very quickly found success. They made a sequel to a sci-fi game owned by Electronic Arts Inc. called System Shock. It fused first-person shooting with horror and became a cult classic. Take-Two bought Irrational in 2006 and published a spiritual successor, BioShock. It’s considered one of the 30 greatest games of all time, according to Metacritic. The latest iteration, 2013’s BioShock Infinite, sold more than 6 million copies.

Levine explained to the stunned crowd that development of the game had drained him and that the company had grown too large. He wanted to explore new ideas with a smaller team, he said. So Levine was starting a new outfit at Take-Two.

He had earlier informed 11 chosen employees of the plan. They had dragged themselves to the office every day knowing their friends would soon be out of a job, says Snight, who designed levels at Irrational. After Levine delivered the news to their colleagues, the remaining employees took a break. “We didn’t come into the studio for a while,” Snight says. “There was a lot of survivor’s guilt.”

When the smaller team reconvened, they began working on a premise that Levine called “narrative Lego.” The idea was for every person’s experience with the game to be unique. Characters would react differently depending on a player’s actions, and they would be thrust into different scenarios every time they played. It was a concept the team thought could stand out from other games. They relocated to a new office in a smaller town nearby. Levine hired a few more people, and they started developing prototypes.

“There was a lot of survivor’s guilt”

Levine told new recruits that his studio offered the financial stability of a major publisher and the agility and artistic freedom of an indie developer, say people who worked there. To ensure the latter, he had negotiated a special arrangement with Take-Two. Rather than answer to 2K, a publishing label that had overseen Irrational, Levine reported directly to the parent company.

The plan was to start small to prove the narrative Lego concept and release a game by fall 2017. It was supposed to be a sci-fi shooter like BioShock set on a mysterious space station inhabited by three factions. Each could act as an ally, an enemy or something in between, depending on what the player did.

Despite promising an indie mentality, Levine wanted to make a game as ambitious as BioShock with a fraction of the staff, say a half-dozen former staffers. Two early employees of the studio recalled a version from around 2016 with elaborate levels and rich, three-dimensional graphics. They wondered how they’d finish it with fewer than 30 people on the team. Others remembered a complicated dialogue system that would morph based on player choices, requiring a tremendous amount of writing that couldn’t have possibly been completed within a year.

Take-Two executives occasionally stopped by the office for updates, but Levine was given agency. “The ideas and ambitions were great,” Giovanni Pasteris, an early employee, wrote in an email. “But the scope just grew and grew without concern for the team’s ability to get it done by our fall 2017 deadline. Ken wanted to make a triple-A game with a ‘budget’ team size. It was never going to happen.”

One constant on Levine’s projects is that he never seems content. Levine studied drama and was taught that the process for achieving greatness was to keep rewriting until everything was perfect. He originally wanted to be a screenwriter before settling on video games.

The late film critic Andrew Sarris introduced the auteur theory to much of the world in the 1960s, adapting an idea from French New Wave cinema. It describes a filmmaker who controls so many aspects of a production that he becomes akin to the author of a novel or play. The theory was used to dissect the work of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and became an aspiration for generations of creative minds.

In Levine’s interpretation, auteurism has meant discarding months of work, much to his staff’s dismay. During development of BioShock Infinite at his previous studio, Levine said he “probably cut two games worth of stuff,” according to a 2012 interview with the site AusGamers. The final months of work on that game demanded extensive overtime, prompting managers to meet informally with some employees’ spouses to apologize.

During a panel discussion a few years ago, Levine explained the final act of his process. “In almost every game I’ve ever worked on, you realize you’re running out of time, and then you make the game,” he said. “You sort of dick around for years, and then you’re like, ‘Oh my god, we’re almost out of time,’ and it forces you to make these decisions.”

But time never seems to run out at the new studio. Ghost Story employees spent weeks or months building components of the new game, only for Levine to scrap them. Levine’s tastes occasionally changed after playing a hot indie release, such as the side-scrolling action game Dead Cells or the comic book-inspired shooter Void Bastards, and he insisted some features be overhauled to emulate those games. Former staff say the constant changes were demoralizing and felt like a hindrance to their careers.

The 2017 target became 2018, then 2019 and on and on. The lax approach to deadlines minimized crunch time, a welcome change from Irrational, three former employees say. But working on a game with no clear release date is a challenge of its own, some staffers say. Employers forbid artists from including assets in their portfolios until a game is unveiled publicly, leaving job seekers to awkwardly justify why they had nothing to show for their last few years of work. 

A persistent tension at Ghost Story, employees say, is between the type of game they set out to make and the kind Levine was used to directing. He wanted to see every moment of the story unfold on screen and fine-tune each one. But the narrative Lego concept made Levine’s cinematic approach impossible to apply because stories would change so much based on player decisions. Levine would often assess aspects of the game when they were not yet finished, decide they weren’t good enough and command the team to scrap or change them, employees say. “The type of game being explored does not match well with the creative process being used,” says Andres Gonzalez, a founding member who left to start a new company with Snight.

Those who worked with Levine say his mercurial demeanor caused strife. Some who sparred with Levine mysteriously stopped appearing in the office, former staff say. When asked, managers typically described the person as a bad match and said they had been let go, say five people who worked there. Others simply quit. The studio’s top producer resigned in 2017 following clashes with Levine.

People followed Levine because he “can be quite charming and charismatic,” says Pasteris, who was an AI programmer at Ghost Story. Levine also “can become moody and lash out, singling out an individual, while berating them in front of their co-workers,” Pasteris says.

Ghost Story employees would occasionally ask Levine how long Take-Two would fund their experiments before demanding a product it could sell. Levine told the staff that their studio is a “rounding error” for the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, according to two former employees. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, agrees. With enough time, Levine offers Take-Two “a realistic chance of a new franchise” like BioShock, he says. “I expect they will continue to allow Ken to take as long as he needs to make something great.”

Auteurs can be effective at enticing investors and consumers to buy into a new intellectual property, says Joost van Dreunen, a professor at New York University who teaches about the video game industry. But he says auteurism is growing out of style as a method for running a game business. “Operationally, it is precisely the type of org structure that results in the various problems the industry faces today,” he says.

Despite its calamitous beginning, Ghost Story was intended to be a friendlier, more supportive environment than its predecessor, says Gonzalez, the founding team member. But the studio was haunted by Levine’s old ways of doing things. “Intentions are one thing, and reality is another,” Gonzalez says. “When there’s a road that’s driven on a bunch, and there’s a rut, getting out of that rut takes energy.”

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard Buy Is Not A ‘Metaverse Bet’ – Forbes

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When Microsoft bought Activision Blizzard this past week for nearly $70 billion, the same refrain kept being repeated, first by Microsoft, then by mainstream outlets. That this purchase was a “big bet on the metaverse.”

And yet no one, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella included, have been able to articulate exactly what that means, or why that’s the case. Unless we have finally arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the true metaverse as it exists right now, is mostly just…video games, and has been for decades now.

There is nothing about the Activision Blizzard purchase that actually speaks to this new, often VR or web3-driven vision of the metaverse. Activision is not a VR or AR developer in any meaningful capacity. Their most “immersive” virtual world game is World of Warcraft, the MMO that has existed as a “livable” virtual space since 2004, and these days, is often badly showing its age.

The metaverse is supposed to be a shared, interconnected digital space, but there’s nothing about this purchase that signals Microsoft is building something like that. This is simply a very large tech company buying a very large video game publisher, and they will then start making a lot of money from those very popular video games.

What idea of the metaverse are we even trying to qualify here? Is it simply the idea that if you own a bunch of IPs under one company, they could theoretically be combined someday to create a “metaverse”? If that’s the definition, than Fortnite is far ahead of everyone, licensing hundreds of IPs for use in its game, including a number across Sony and Microsoft video games (Master Chief, Kratos, Aloy, Marcus Fenix, etc).

Microsoft is betting on the video game industry, you know, the thing that has existed for forty years and is bigger than all other entertainment industries combined? The metaverse remains little more than a buzzword, something to spur investment in web3 projects, or try to justify Facebook’s colossal investment in VR. I do agree that video games, as a concept, are closer to the fictionalized vision of the metaverse than anything else, and yet this has been true for eons. Purchasing Activision Blizzard, which does not really have much of a roster of “living universe” games, seems entirely outside of this. Minecraft was more of a “metaverse purchase than this,” but that buzzword didn’t exist back then.

I think tech investment in video games is a good thing overall, and I expect to see more of it. But pretending like buying the company who produces the highest selling video game of the year, every year, is about making a “metaverse play” is disingenuous, and simply repackaging something that has already existed for decades.

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Pick up my sci-fi novels the Herokiller series and The Earthborn Trilogy.

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Samsung Galaxy S22 series now rumoured to launch February 9 – MobileSyrup

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Samsung recently revealed an Unpacked event is coming but didn’t set a specific date for the keynote. Rumours previously indicated that the event would take place on February 8th. However, information from reliable tipster Ice Universe suggests the S22 series will instead be revealed on February 9th.

Ice Universe reportedly made the post on the China-based microblogging site Weibo, stating that the Galaxy S22 series will launch on February 9th alongside the Galaxy Tab S8.

However, Digital Daily says that the phone series will launch on February 8th, with the devices releasing on February 24th.

Rumours indicate Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra will feature a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, up to 12GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and work with an S Pen. The other S22 models will lack the S Pen, sport an S21-like design, a trio of cameras, and the aforementioned Snapdragon 8 gen 1 chipset.

Samsung will likely unveil the official launch date for the Galaxy S22 series in the coming weeks.

Source: Weibo, Android Police 

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Samsung Galaxy A53 passes through TENAA, some specifications revealed – XDA Developers

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The Galaxy S22 series isn’t too far off, with Samsung now accepting reservation orders for the phones, but there are a few other devices in the pipeline too. One of them is the Galaxy A53, the upcoming entry in Samsung’s super-popular A50 lineup, which has already leaked a few times. Now we have the first concrete information about the phone’s hardware, thanks to a new regulatory listing.

TENAA, China’s equivalent to the FCC, has published certification information for the Galaxy A53 (via Android Authority). The page includes dimly-lit photos of the phone from the front, rear, and side, which appear to match the renders published by OnLeaks from November. There is some new information though, especially about the internal hardware.

The phone is identified as the SM-A5360, and has 5G support — there was speculation that Samsung might be ditching the 4G option and only selling a 5G-capabel A53, but we’ll have to wait and see if that’s true for every region. TENAA says the device measures 159.5×74.7×8.1 mm, again matching the information from OnLeaks, and weighs 190 grams.

Other hardware details include a 6.46-inch 1080×2400 display, a 4,860mAh battery, an unspecified 8-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, 128 or 256GB of internal storage, microSD card support up to 1TB, and an under-screen fingerprint sensor. There are three rear cameras: 64MP, 32MP, and two 5MP. The listing also reaffirms the Galaxy A53 won’t have a headphone jack, which is a shame.

Overall, the phone doesn’t appear to be significantly different from last year’s Galaxy A52. The screen is nearly identical in size, though we don’t know the refresh rate — the A52 4G had a 90Hz display, while the A52 5G/A52S was 120Hz. The Galaxy A52 also had the same 8GB RAM, 128/256GB storage, and in-display fingerprint sensor. We don’t know for sure what each camera will do, but the A52 had a 64MP primary lens, a 12MP ultra-wide, a 5MP macro, and a 5MP depth sensor. The 32MP camera mentioned in the listing could be an upgraded ultra-wide, or Samsung might be swapping it for something else (like a telephoto camera).

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